How to visualize my data with the Esri tools? A comprehensive benchmarking to help you through the process
As of 2020, Esri offers five different off-the-shelf tools for data visualization:
- ArcGIS Dashboard
- ArcGIS Web AppBuilder
- ArcGIS Insights
- ArcGIS Maps for Power BI
- ArcGIS Experience
This blog post is focusing on the first four options.
Under the ongoing partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), CartONG has been using some of these tools to cater for different data visualization needs. We have used this as an opportunity to benchmark the ESRI data visualization solutions. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What would be the best tool for which type of scenario?
Especially with the COVID-19 crisis, more and more humanitarian actors showed interest in setting up their own dashboard about the COVID-19 situation and its impact on their work. However, with the wide availability of dashboard tools, it can be difficult to decide, which one of them is best serving a particular project or operation. Similarly, the first tool that comes to one’s mind may not be the best for meeting the user’s needs.
The purpose of this blog post and the adjoining benchmarking document is to help the broader humanitarian community in their data visualization efforts. By providing a comprehensive overview of each tool, we aim to support humanitarian actors in selecting a tool that is best suited to specific needs and objectives.
A quick overview and comparison of the tools
ArcGIS Dashboard is a basic data visualization tool with a simple and intuitive user interface. The tool is available by default on ArcGIS Online for ArcGIS subscribers with Creator or GIS Professional user type. In addition to the map element, there are several different chart options to use, including bar, pie, gauge and numeric indicators. There is also a possibility to add text or multimedia on the dashboard. While the visualization options are rather limited, the significant advantage of ArcGIS Dashboard lies in the quick and easy set-up process. This tool is particularly recommended when all the data featured on the dashboard is stored on ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Portal.
ArcGIS Web AppBuilder is a map-centred data visualization tool and comes with a wide selection of widget and visualization options. Like ArcGIS Dashboard, this tool comes by default for ArcGIS subscribers with Creator or GIS Professional user type accounts. With the “Indicator” widget, one can accompany the map element with bar, line, pie, gauge or numeric indicator charts. Likewise, the “Analysis” widget allows using map-based visualizations, including creating buffers, clusters and hotspots. Accordingly, the Web AppBuilder can be highly recommended for dashboards displaying spatial analysis.
Thanks to the widget catalogue, dashboards created with the ArcGIS Web AppBuilder can contain many features not available on other dashboard tools. For example, with the “Edit” and “Upload” widgets, users will be able to add their own data to the dashboard or edit the existing data. Hence, the Web AppBuilder is particularly useful for creating dashboard applications where the end users are contributing, rather than just viewing the content of the dashboard.
ArcGIS Insights is a tool for data visualization, exploration and analysis. Unlike the ArcGIS Dashboard and Web AppBuilder, Insights requires an add-on license on top of the regular ArcGIS subscription. Moreover, in contrast with the other ArcGIS Online tools, ArcGIS Insights comes with an extensive selection of data visualization options. Non-spatial chart options include some unique options including bubble chart, heatmap, data clocks and chord diagram for exploring data relationships. Additionally, there are many map-based options for data visualization and analysis including density analysis, hotspots, buffers and intersection. With these features, Insights is particularly powerful for discovering trends and patterns in both spatial and non-spatial datasets.
ArcGIS Maps for Power BI differs from the other benchmarked tools in the sense that it is not available on ArcGIS online. Instead, it comes as an add-on to the regular Power BI desktop software. Power BI comes with a large catalogue of standard and customizable data visualization options, ranging from the basic bar and pie charts to more sophisticated options, including word clouds and distance analysis. The ArcGIS Maps option allows taking the map visualization element to the next level with the use of publicly available maps on ArcGIS Online. You are also able to use your own ArcGIS Online content, as long as it is shared with the wider public.
As a significant disadvantage, the use of the ArcGIS Maps extension takes away the possibility to share or embed the dashboard online. Accordingly, this option is suitable only for cases where sharing will take place through internal channels (such as SharePoint).
A quick comparison chart:
Examples of use cases
CartONG has vast experience of using two out of the four benchmarked tools: ArcGIS Dashboard and the WebAppBuilder. These tools have been used both as part of the UNHCR portfolio and other partner organizations alike. Additionally, CartONG has implemented multiple projects using Power BI but without the ArcGIS Maps extension, and we have prefered using MapBox (you can refer to the following blog post for more details on this) . So far, CartONG does not have a use case of ArcGIS Insights in production mode – however, the team has carried out some experiments with this tool to assess its potential advantages for future use cases.
During the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis in the spring of 2020, CartONG learned the strength of ArcGIS Dashboard especially in rapid response situations. With its simple and intuitive user interface, one is able to quickly set up a dashboard featuring the core operational indicators. The main challenges with this tool are related mainly to the back-end and the data connectivity as an interim database had to be set up to connect the external COVID-19 case data to the internal operational data. There are also certain limitations on the front end side, including the requirement to set up manually all connections and interaction between the dashboard elements. However, as a whole, CartONG would use ArcGIS Dashboard again in case there is a need for quick visualization for operational data. This is particularly the case when all the data is already hosted on ArcGIS Online.
Moreover, CartONG has created several web maps using the Web AppBuilder tool. For example, tasks such as long-term refugee site mapping require constant monitoring and updating. An effective way to implement this is to build a web map application with the “Edit” and “Add” widgets, accompanied by the relevant indicator charts. Those assigned with the relevant user rights will be able to edit the existing data and update new data as and when required. In the context of the Ethiopia mapping mission, ongoing since 2019, the data edits and contributions are done on a dashboard built with the Web AppBuilder. However, another viewing version has been set up with ArcGIS Dashboard, which is a significantly simpler tool for setting up “View only” dashboards. With this approach, we have been able to utilize the strengths of both tools.
Building a decision tree is never easy, as there are many ways to approach the tool selection dilemma. The decision tree below uses spatial analysis as the starting point. However, answering “no” to the first or any other question does not mean that one can not still use the software in the “yes” option. Accordingly, this decision tree should be treated as an indicative guideline to help the decision-making process. The ultimate selection should be based on a broader assessment on the strengths and weaknesses of each tool, as detailed in the benchmarking document.
As discussed above, each of the four benchmarked tools comes with its own features, strengths and weaknesses. Accordingly, the ultimate choice on the tool to be used will depend on the purpose of the dashboard as well as the needs of the users. Sometimes, compromises with the user requirements are necessary – for example, a powerful map-centred dashboard with sophisticated spatial analysis might be possible only with the ArcGIS Web AppBuilder. In this case, special visualizations, such as bubble charts or word clouds, will not be available.
The CartONG team hopes that this blog post, along with the full benchmarking document, will be helpful for guiding the selection process. Likewise, we have included a short user guidance document in the benchmarking to provide quick kick-off instructions on how to get started with the selected visualization tools. With this package, we encourage all humanitarian actors to put their data into a visual format, allowing deeper and faster analysis and evidence-based decision-making.
You may download the full benchmarking here below: